Our Athletes Carry the Nervous Energy of the Nation.
Our need to be reassured as spectators makes it increasingly hard for our favourite athletes to perform. Swimmers train for years in the calm meditative tranquillity of water. Then they get to the Olympics and everything changes. Our want for validation as a country may interfere with the performances of our athletes. We ask our athletes to reassure us. That they are feeling ready to win Olympic gold so that we can feel better! We look towards this reassurance to quell the nerves that arise in us as we wait for their contest.
Everyone has an opinion of why the Campbell sisters and Cameron McEvoy didn’t medal in their respective swimming events today (12 August). The general consensus was psychological. McEvoy’s coach Jacco Verhaeren was quoted as saying his charge was in great condition physically, technically and tactically and his disappointing performance was mental.
Bronte and Cate Campbell were first and second at the 50m turn in their 100m final but faded out of the medals. They had joked about winning the Olympic gold in a tie. Ironically, the gold medal performance was a tie between Simone Manuel (USA) and Penny Oleksiak (CAN) who both touched in an Olympic record time of 51.70sec.
So what, if anything, went wrong?
The mental part of elite performance is still underestimated. A simple thought changes one’s whole physiology. To be in great condition physically, technically and tactically, as Verhaeren said of McEvoy, means nothing if the athletes thoughts are not in the right place.
A simple thought changes which chemicals are released by the brain. For example, being afraid of not living up to expectations releases adrenaline and cortisol which can tighten muscles. This changes biomechanics and interferes with technique and energy stores. An athlete who lets uncertainty slip into his or her thinking is like a car revving the engine and burning through the petrol in the tank. Did Cam start with a depleted tank?
In Cate and Bronte’s case, extra adrenaline at the wrong time can lead to a revved-up start. Quick over the first 50 meters but not enough energy in the tank to come home. Our thoughts trigger emotions. It’s a fine line between being in a determined head space and trying too hard. Just a subtle flick in our neural system, but it makes all the difference.
When athletes feel determined and excited about seeing what they can achieve, dopamine flows. This adds to focus and concentration. When they are desperate to perform well they can find themselves in an adrenaline head space where cortisol takes over.
It is always easier to be the underdog because striving for achievement kicks in dopamine. Being the favourite leaves our champions with only one way to succeed and many ways to fail. This can trigger too much adrenaline.
Spectators may think they are helping their athletes by their positive and supportive encouragement. But it can be a constant reminder to the athlete of how many people they will be disappoint, if they don’t win.
Contrary to what some may think, it isn’t necessary for athletes to think positively and speak confidentially to be in the right head space. Research has shown that being neutral in one’s thoughts is just as effective.
Our thirst for reassurance as spectators can contribute to putting our athletes in the wrong headspace. It can keep athletes in a competitive headspace when they would be better off switching off completely and conserving their mental energy for their racing.
Perhaps it isn’t that our athletes can’t take the pressure, but rather, we can’t! How about we stop interfering with their preparation and routines by becoming overly invested in their lives. Then they might have more mental energy to do their jobs well.